WASHINGTON – He was 17 years old and lived with his mother in Minneapolis.
On election night, while the world watched one man of African descent make headlines in the United States, Burhaan Hassan and several others were about to make news as well.
Hassan and a few friends slipped away from their homes that night and boarded an airplane bound for Kenya. Their final destination was Somalia – allegedly to fight alongside al-Qaida-inspired militants against what’s left of the Somali government.
Startling, but not unusual, their stories raise questions: How did children who relied on their single mothers for an allowance pay for one-way flights from the the U.S. to Kenya?
And who sent them?
“The FBI has had reports that some young men have left America to travel back to Somalia to fight in a cause that they’ve have chosen to fight in,” FBI spokesman Rich Kolko says.
This sequence of events has sent shock waves through Somali communities across the country.
“We are very much concerned about our young people going back to fight back home,” says Ahmed Elmi, chairman of the Somali-American Community Association (SACA) in Washington, D.C.
While extremely concerned, Elmi is skeptical.
“We don’t really have any evidence to believe that such things have happened,” Elmi says. “The law enforcement officers have not come forward about their findings. There’s cases that they have reported, but there is not enough information available, so we don’t know the extent to which this thing is happening, and if it’s really something that’s happening.”
The skepticism also rises from an undercurrent that has coursed through the U.S. since the Sept. 11 attacks. Many Muslims living in the U.S. and other countries say they’ve seen a backlash against them and their religion.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Muqtedar Khan, author of “American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom”, wrote, “the American government itself has become a threat to our civil rights.”
But another threat is lurking in their own communities: terrorist recruiters.
A journalist working for the Warsun Times, a small online newspaper that covers Somali affairs in Minneapolis, made a very bold statement.
“The Mosque brainwashed those kids,” he said, suggesting the recruiters are working inside mosques in Minneapolis and other locations throughout the nation.
He talked with me on the condition of anonymity, because of concerns about community backlash.
But another man, Abdizirak Bihi, is not worried about a backlash. The Warsun Times reporter told told me he stood up at a community meeting and stunned the crowd saying, “My nephew, a U.S. citizen from Minneapolis, was brain-washed, smuggled to Somalia and he blew himself up.”
Bihi added, “There were two of them (suicide bombers) and the American government knew about it because they were (American) citizens and the American government returned their remains to the U.S.”
Kolko says the FBI is working with the Somali-American community to reach out to the boys that may be vulnerable to the recruiters.
“The FBI is aware of this issue and we’re certainly concerned about it and we know that the Somali-American community is equally concerned because these are their children and their family members,” Kolko says.
Despite his skepticism, Elmi’s organization is working in the Washington Metropolitan area to warn young men that going off to Somalia to fight effectively means they’re closing the door to the U.S. for good.
“A lot of the immigrants and families run away from the conditions in Somalia,” Elmi says. “And it’s inconceivable to think about people who are going back to fight back home for something they’ve left their country for.”
Kolko says going back to fight is “not a good cause of action” and trouble awaits them in the U.S. should they try to return.
“If someone comes back from anywhere in the world that has had terrorism training, the FBI would do the things that are necessary to help protect America,” Kolko says.
These cases seem to reveal the reasons federal law enforcement across the country are paying close, but respectful attention to activities inside mosques.
Their focus sharpened in June of 2005 when a Korea Airlines flight from San Francisco was diverted to Japan. Authorities nabbed al-Qaida suspect Hamid Hayat and his father Umer, from Lodi, Calif.
“They came to our attention at least a year and a half before,” says Frank Scafidi, now retired from the FBI Sacramento Field office.
“We began collecting information about him and his father Umer. Who their associates were, what their travels were, and were any of those activities something that we should be concerned about,” Scafidi says.
Scafidi confirms the Hayats’ mosques were a focal point of their investigation.
The younger Hayat admitted that he attended an al-Qaida training camp in Pakistan to learn how to kill Americans. He’s serving a long prison term. His father plead guilty to lesser charges.